Michael Jeh January 8, 2009

Pride of place

In this instance, KP may have misjudged his power play slightly but the writing is on the wall

It is poignant that Kevin Pietersen was on safari in Africa last week. Inspired perhaps by the roar of a young lion, in the prime of youth, on the cusp of inheriting a kingdom, KP threw down the challenge to the ECB, confident that his ageing rival would realise that the new King had arrived and make way without the need for a dangerous fight.

Cricket, like other professional sports before it, had better get used to this. It will happen increasingly so, as cricketers fully come to terms with the massive shift in power that comes with huge salaries and multiple paymasters.

To that extent, the ECB’s alleged disenchantment with KP’s ultimatum is a breath of fresh air. Rumour has it that if he hadn’t resigned from the captaincy, the ECB may have removed him from that honour anyway. If true, it is a brave but ultimately futile attempt to redress the balance of power between employer and employee. In this instance, KP may have sensed that his earlier brinkmanship was a miscalculation but it is a portent of the way things will be in international cricket.

Professional sport, especially the big money team sports like football, rugby, cricket, basketball, baseball etc, is a curious beast to describe. In some senses, players, coaches and administrators like to think that they inhabit an industry that is no different to the world of business and commerce. Instead of trading in widgets and whatsits, they trade in runs, wickets or goals.

CEO’s run the business with a ruthless eye on the bottom line. Employees justify their exorbitant salaries and cosseted lifestyles, replete with a veritable army of medical staff and personal trainers by claiming that they are merely doing a job like any other normal person in the community.

This argument breaks down a little bit when these same athletes want to be treated as ‘special’ when it suits them but also claim that they are just normal people when their excessive behaviours attract any unwanted media attention. Which is it? Are you a normal person living by normal rules or are you someone quite special with role model status and high-roller salary?

What I really want to explore though is the difference between sport and business and why they can never really be treated the same. Professional sport is possibly the only industry where the employees wield considerably more power than the CEO or coach/manager. With few exceptions, this highly unusual situation is at the root of the future problems that cricket administrators will face.

Where else does the CEO earn a fraction of what his ‘workers’ make? Same applies to coaches and managers and those charged with maintaining discipline. In business, the Chairman, President or CEO truly holds the whip hand, both in real power and probably in earning power too, which translates into real power anyway. In most team sports, it is the athlete who is the ultimate asset. And he knows it!

Think about the superstars like Warne, Lara, Tendulkar or Pietersen himself. They know full well that cricket needs them more than they need their CEO. They make ten times the money (at least), they get a hundred times the media attention and they put bums on seats in stadia or on TV. No CEO or coach has that sort of pulling power.

With the advent of the IPL cash cow, these marquee players feel an even greater sense of empowerment. Playing for one’s country may still be the ultimate honour but the cheques are bigger in ‘private enterprise’. It’s no different to signing up to fight for your country’s army for good wages or as a mercenary for a rich warlord who pays handsomely for performance without emotional ties to any national flag. Discipline becomes extremely hard to enforce because the players can choose another employer who will pay just as much, perhaps much more!

There’s no real solution to the problem, not when the players continue to command the lion’s share of the money, compared to their so-called bosses. If it honestly came down to a battle between Ricky Ponting and James Sutherland, who do you think would win that battle? How can the zoo keeper really expect blind obedience when the lion knows he is unarmed and defenceless? In football, try telling someone like David Beckham that his coach has more power than him? By the way, who is his coach? See what I mean?

In this instance, KP may have misjudged his power play slightly but the writing is on the wall. The lion tamers know that they are the bosses in name only. On the open savannah, the young lions know full well that their bite is more powerful than their master’s roar.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane